Kurt Cobain In His Own Words
So much of his mystique, in both life and death, was this aura of darkness.
by Rob Janicke
“I decided within the next month, I’ll not sit on my roof and think about jumping, but I’ll actually kill myself” — Kurt Cobain/Montage of Heck
Documentary films, particularly those about obscenely famous and iconic figures, tend to paint a picture of the subject that the filmmaker sees fit. In Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, producer/filmmaker Brett Morgen allowed Kurt’s words, music, art, and those closest to him, speak instead.
In April of 2015, Montage of Heck was released to theaters and thus the world, for what would be the first documentary of the late Cobain created with the help and blessing of Kurt’s family.
The world was turned upside in 1991 with the release of Nevermind, the second album by Seattle rock band, Nirvana. Music, society, and pop culture would be forever changed due to the success of this record and the subsequent music scene it launched. Kurt Cobain would become the reluctant spokesperson for Generation X throughout the band’s career up until his suicide in the Spring of 1994.
Countless articles, books, essays, and documentaries have been written and created about Nirvana, and specifically, Cobain himself. Montage of Heck though, broke the mold when it came to trying to delve into the mind of a tortured genius by using the art of its subject to tell the majority of the story.
The documentary begins with mostly black and white television/film clips from the 1950s and 60s. A depiction of wholesome American family life we will come to learn Kurt was so desperately longing for.
This would set the tone for the recurring theme of Kurt feeling isolated and alone mainly due to the instability of his home life as a child. Soon after, we see some Cobain family home movies of Kurt as a baby with the Nirvana song “All Apologies” playing over them. This song was not randomly placed at this moment. It was some brilliant storytelling by Morgen. It comes off as Kurt feeling sorry for himself that was even born and at the same time, making amends for his future fame and success.
So much of Kurt Cobain’s mystique, in both life and death, was this aura of darkness, and even sadness, which always seemed to shadow him. Even when he was seemingly on top of the world, selling millions of albums in the biggest band on the planet, those storm clouds were unmistakable. The film allows Kurt to “explain” some of this with artwork and drawings from when he was a toddler which were odd at best and frightening at worst.
Kurt’s upbringing, according to the film, seemed to be the worst type of training or preparation for the career he would eventually have. He was an active child who, for reasons that weren’t made clear beyond that, was prescribed Ritalin by his pediatrician.
His parents did not have a healthy relationship and were divorced by the time Kurt was nine-years-old. His mother had little patience for the active youngster and his father would belittle and ridicule him often. This would leave Cobain with a massive complex and a hatred towards feelings of criticism or embarrassment.
“I couldn’t handle the ridicule, so I got high and drunk and walked down to the train tracks, and laid down and put two big pieces of cement on my chest and legs and I waited for the eleven o’clock train . And the train came closer and closer and closer, and it went on the next track besides me instead of over me.” — Kurt Cobain/Montage of Heck
Around this time in the film, Morgen ups the ante and brings to light Kurt’s descent into the darker corners of his mind. He was able to do this with the cooperation and access given to him by Kurt’s family, including his wife, musician, and actress, Courtney Love, and their daughter, Frances Bean Cobain.
Moregn explains to Paste magazine how finding some invaluable items in a storage unit, after being asked by Courtney to do the film, was what really gave the documentary the tone and the feel it wound up having:
“It wasn’t until I actually got into the storage facility that I think everything really came together for me…and that the real discovery was opening up a box and finding 108 cassettes. No one had told me there was going to be some audio in there, in the storage facility, and on those cassettes was just a treasure chest of portals into Kurt’s mind, and into his being and into just these little asides that were so revealing.” — Brett Morgen in Paste Magazine
As the film continues, it’s obvious that being granted all of this access by the family and having the ability to let Kurt’s own words tell most of the story, Morgen knew to lay back and do all he could to serve the film as opposed to “writing” the film himself. The script had been written a long time ago by Kurt Cobain and Morgen understood it was best to let Kurt speak for himself. It was the right play for this type of film.
Often, documentaries are created to try and sensationalize or drive home a narrative the creators want. Filmmaking is big business and creating a film that will sell the most, usually by causing the most controversy, rules the day. There are other Kurt Cobain documentaries out there that focus on his death, his drug use, and the toxicity of his relationship with Courtney Love. All have their merit, but all have a decided angle the producers want you to see.
Montage of Heck is unique in the fact that it does rely on Kurt for the bulk of the movie. Yes, there are interviews throughout from his parents, his sister, Courtney, and his Nirvana bandmate, Krist Novoselic, among others, but Kurt’s words via books, notes, journals, tapes, and song lyrics carry the narrative all the way through.
Kurt Cobain was a difficult person to get a read on. He was smart and funny, yet destructive and sarcastic. He was a walking contradiction of empathy and apathy. There are many examples throughout his career where Kurt came across as hating fame and wanting to shun the spotlight. Yet his words, and the words of those closest to him, would prove disingenuous.
For the most part, Kurt would shun the spotlight every chance he had. He pretended to hate fame yet would often say things to the contrary:
“We actually want to become successful, so we can have a comfortable life.” — Kurt Cobain/Montage of Heck
I remember during Nirvana’s meteoric rise to superstardom, Kurt would try and smash their success and hide from the adulation. It was his punk rock roots that told him he was quite possibly a “sell-out” for fronting the biggest rock band in the world. That was a huge concern for many rock musicians at the time. That being said, more of Kurt’s own words from Montage of Heckwould contradict those thoughts and feelings:
“I would give up everything to have good health. But then again, I’m always afraid that, if I lost the stomach problem, I might not be as creative.” — Kurt Cobain/Montage of Heck
Brett Morgen took a chance with accepting the gargantuan task of capturing the inner thoughts and feelings of one of the most important people in the history of popular music. Kurt Cobain will remain an iconic musical and cultural figure for the rest of time. Like Lennon and Dylan before him, Cobain is forever.
Ignoring any attempt to add his slant to this film, Morgen did his best to let Kurt tell his own story. It didn’t come without criticism, however. Covering a person so famous could never go without a critical eye.
Buzz Osborne of the Seattle band the Melvins, (and close friend of Cobain) also from Washington State, had some very harsh words for the film. In an article published in Rolling Stone, Osborne pulled no punches:
“People need to understand that 90 percent of Montage of Heck is bullshit. Total bullshit” — Buzz Osborne/Melvins
By all accounts, Kurt and Buzz were very close. Kurt has said more than once that it was the Melvin’s loud, sludge-filled sound that first let him know that great music can come from his hometown. Buzz and the Melvins were a huge influence on Kurt. There’s even a scene in the film where he says that a tape of punk rock music, given to him by Osborne, is what solidified the fact that playing music is what he wanted to do with his life.
So it should be noted that Osborne’s critical tongue should carry some weight:
“Unfortunately, it matters very little what the facts are; what matters is what people believe. And when it comes to Cobain, most of what they believe is fabricated nonsense. Montage of Heck does nothing to counter that….“That’s the one thing no one gets about Cobain — he was a master of jerking your chain.” — Buzz Osborne/Melvins
With any work of art, people will have varying opinions, it’s what makes creating something and releasing it to the world so exhilarating. It’s the element of the unknown. Brett Morgen and his film Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, has their place in history covering the enigma that was and is, Kurt Cobain. It’s a film that took many chances and presented itself in a way we’re not accustomed to. You might just say it’s got many sides and points of view to it, not at all unlike that of its subject, Kurt Cobain.